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ROBBEN ISLAND - more than Nelson Mandela

Robben Island

"Welcome to Robben Island! I am a prisoner 76/85. This was my cell. "

After a slight pressure in the abdominal area had already emerged during the approximately 30-minute crossing and at the latest when landing on this famous island in sight of the metropolis of Cape Town, this remark was suitable, that a historical shiver ran over the back.

"I arrived on Robben Island in 1985 as the 76th prisoner, so the numbers were assigned. My name is actually Abiola *, but I was not allowed to use it here on the island in the next few years. "

Abiola is now a tourist guide on Robben Island, as are some of the former prisoners. And he has no problem with it, as he says. It even helped him to better handle the past. And some of his former detainees and colleagues even live on the island.

During the tour, he tells a lot about the history, even before the apartheid era.

The island was already used as a convict colony in the 17th century. In addition, a good shale construction material was obtained in the quarries for the Castle of Good Hope and other structures. The Dutch established this base near Cape Town on behalf of the East India Trade Company.

Until the 20th century, there was a leprosy camp on the island that lived here in isolated villages.

From 1939 Robben Iceland served as a military base, in 1961 she was again a prison island.

With the rise of the anti-apartheid movement, Robben Island became South Africa's most notorious prison for political prisoners. For hard work in the quarry, they were often inadequately dressed and initially had to sleep on thin straw mats on the cold stone floor.

Robben Island was well suited as a prison island, because escape attempts were virtually hopeless because of the distance of 7 to 12 km to the land and the cold, dangerous current.

More than 3000 prisoners have been there over the years, according to Abiola, who was imprisoned here for many years. Of course, inmate 466/64 - Nelson Mandela - is the most famous.

While Abiola was housed as an "ordinary prisoner" in a cell of up to two dozen others, the prisoners most feared by the apartheid regime were housed in the high-security wing. Cells with two by two square meters, draughty grid windows, without water, without toilet and without bed or couch. Even at the coldest temperatures, only the ceiling on the stone floor remained to sleep.

Of course, the queue in front of the cell where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his 27 years in jail forms long lines. But she is no different from everyone else in this tract.

And Abiola also seems to want to dampen this personality cult rather by moving on relatively quickly, pointing to all the others who have fought for their belief as well, spent much of their lives in those cells, and in part died for it.

Abiola reports that seven of the eight convicts in the Rivonia trial, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada (who died at the age of 87 in April 2017), and the chairman of the Pan Africanist Congress were among the detainees Robert Sobukwe, who was held in solitary confinement for six years at today's Robert Sobukwe House.

In 1971, the prisoners after strikes and protests managed to enforce more humane conditions, and were now even allowed to study in prison. The main part of it had Nelson Mandela, the ANC rebel leader and later peace politicians.

South Africa interned in the time of apartheid mainly political prisoners, but also criminals. In 1991, the high-security prison for political prisoners was dissolved, and in 1996 the section for ordinary criminals.

In 1994, Mandela was the first black president in South Africa to include eleven of his former Robben Island inmates in his government. But many others took up the struggle against racism and apartheid after the release.

And another thing Abiola is very important during the tour: this island is also a natural beauty, as he almost enthusiastically emphasizes. Imposing rock formations, a very special fauna and flora, dozens of bird species, penguins, seals, antelope, turtles and guinea fowl. With a little luck you can see whales or dolphins.

When a look back confirms exactly that - a green, picturesque piece of land in the ocean, with its lighthouse and cottage even reminiscent of a North Sea island. Only the watchtowers ensure that the concern does not disappear so quickly.

On this topic the book tip: “Long Walk to Freedom: Autobiography" by Nelson Mandela.

* Name and number have been changed.


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